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ALY BAIN & THE BT SCOTTISH ENSEMBLE "Follow the Moonstone"
Whirlie CD4

CHARLIE LENNON "Flight from the Hungry Land" - Worldmusic WOM 102

These two albums both combine traditional and classical music, but in very different ways. Aly Bain's recording is based almost entirely on old traditional tunes, but these have been arranged into modern suites by the Norwegian classical composer Henning Sommerro. Charlie Lennon, a composer within the Irish tradition, has written a suite for orchestra and traditional ensemble which consists largely of his own compositions in traditional forms and styles. Both recordings are at the successful end of the folk-classical spectrum, but the effect is very different.

"Follow the Moonstone" consists of three suites based on the traditional music of Scandinavia, Shetland and Scotland. The whole thing lasts about 43 minutes, but could be listened to as individual suites. The fiddling of Aly Bain comes through very well, and he is given ample scope for solos especially in the Shetland suite.

The arrangements are generally sensitive and sympathetic, and the ensemble players blend very well with the traditional fiddling. The outstanding thing about this album is that it brings together some of the very best tunes from around the North Sea. Certainly the Scottish and Shetland suites give an excellent impression of those traditions. Shetland is represented by "Da Auld Foula Reel", "The Day Dawn" and one of my favourites, the "Papa Stour Sword Dance"; Scotland contributes the classic march "Captain Cambell", the slow strathspey "The Beauty of the North", and the Skinner reel "The Hurricane" amongst others.

Each suite starts and finishes on a great tune, and the classical arrangements do full justice to the traditional melodies. The opening track, "Till Far", is a very moving piece, and the polska which ends the Scandinavian suite is a wonderfully unpredictable tune which lends itself to a string-section arrangement. The Scandinavian suite also includes the only piece written by Henning Sommerro, "Vib ad Lib", which didn't seem to me to fit in with the rest of the album: the melody is a little too conscious, and the intervals just aren't right somehow.

The Shetland suite is perhaps the most interesting, with a lot of Aly Bain and some very unusual tunes. The first reel is followed by the haunting "Winyadelpa", which shows strong Scandinavian influences, and then comes "The Day Dawn" which is a little over-arranged in the middle but a superb tune nonetheless. The muted arrangement on "Doon da Rooth" works much better. There follows a lovely gentle lullaby, and then the wonderful "Papa Stour Sword Dance" which is given a very fine treatment. Nearly all the tunes in this suite are very old, and quite different from the Shetland reels we all know and love.

The final suite brings us to Scotland, and tunes from the piping and fiddle traditions. The march "Captain Cambell" is a majestic pipe tune which is given an unfortunately frivolous feel by the pizzicato and staccato strings: I had a vision of the captain skipping along on tiptoe like a kilted Sugar Plum Fairy. The slow air "John Roy Lyall" and the strathspey "The Beauty of the North" show the sadder side of the Scottish fiddle, and are both exquisitely done. Skinner's "The Hurricane" races along, propelled by a whole cattery of fiddles, and the final track "Herr Roloff's farewell" is appropriate in every way.

The dynamics of these suites are excellent, the structure and content is full of surprises, and the execution is generally brilliant. Here is the tradition embellished but not impoverished.

"Flight from the Hungry Land" is one suite in three parts, and follows the fortunes of an Irish family forced to emigrate by the 1846 famine and make a new life in America. It combines orchestral pieces (from the RTE Concert Orchestra) with traditional ensemble playing. Charlie Lennon has composed the entire work, but traditional tunes surface from time to time.

There is quite a sharp division between the orchestral pieces and the traditional sets, despite swapping of soloists: some movements are clearly in one idiom, and some are in the other. The orchestral arrangements fit round the traditional pieces very well, with one notable exception on track 7 (annoying pizzicato again). The first part describes life in Ireland before the famine, and is the most traditional and perhaps most convincing of the three parts. The traditional musicians get a large slice of the action, and the piping of Michael O'Brien shines through in particular. This section finishes with some very nice polkas.

The second part is the most difficult, describing the famine and subsequent emigration, with death and misery the main themes. Here we depart from traditional music to a very large degree, and the orchestral strings provide most of the emotional colour. Maybe traditional music doesn't lend itself to lamentation so well. There is a very sudden change in track 8 from the forced cheer of the emigrants (a hornpipe on flute and harp) to a haunting slow air from Michael O'Brien's pipes. Part three tells of arrival and integration in America, and has some lovely tunes as well as a nice little seven-minute violin concerto. The interweaving of Irish and other cultures is very cleverly done, and the final piece pulls in all the various threads to give a satisfying conclusion.

The various solo instruments are used to good effect throughout this fifteen-movement suite, providing plenty of variety, and there are also several hummable tunes. The middle section is hard going, but the themes all come together in the end. The piping of Michael O'Brien is outstanding, as is the oboe of Peter Healy.

Both these albums manage to combine the traditional and the classical without compromising either. Charlie Lennon does this by writing in both idioms and keeping them firmly apart at times. Henning Sommerro succeeds by taking great tunes and arranging them sparingly, and also by employing the talents of Aly Bain who can play in several different styles at once! Some of each work will surely pass into the tradition, and with luck we are seeing a new trend in folk-classical collaborations which preserves the best of both traditions without sacrificing either in an equal partnership.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 15 of The Living Tradition magazine.